First Night: George Michael, Palau Sant Jordi, Barcelona

He swore he'd never sing live again - the audience were delighted he did

Pierre Perrone
Monday 25 September 2006 00:13

He's sold 80 million records, been in the newspapers for all the wrong reasons and swore he'd never sing live again but, on the opening night of his first tour in 15 years, George Michael turns this 18,000-capacity arena into a giant disco when he's not delivering some killer ballads in his rich, emotive voice.

He couldn't have picked a better place to start since this is La Fiesta De La Merce in the Catalan capital and Barcelona is ready to party. "Waiting" makes for an apt introduction but when the black curtain drops to reveal the singer emerging from a gigantic cascading video screen, which reaches all the way from the rafters down to the front row, the audience gasps in wonder.

The band hit "Flawless" and the screen pulsates with colours to match the track's groove and Michael's impeccable vocal inflections. He looks fine too, with trademark stubble and glasses and wearing a black suit and shirt.

The musicians are positioned on three different levels either side of the huge vertical screen but a trio of backing vocalists come out on both sides to engage the audience further. "Fast Love", his last UK number one from 1996, proves even more infectious than "Forget Me Nots", the Patrice Rushen disco classic it samples. The breathtaking staging - the screen is by turns a glowing red sunset or a pool of shimmering water - fits the performer who was so much part of the MTV era in the Eighties and remains a staple of mainstream radio.

Indeed, "Father Figure" showcases Michael's gentler side and a masterful rendition of "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" proves that the white boy from Bushey can be as soulful an interpreter as Roberta Flack. Even if there is maybe one slow song too many in an otherwise splendid first half, the singer adds poignancy and resonance to the lyric, "This is the year of the guilty man, and the television takes a stand," during "Praying For Time". He is known for his occasional bout of breast-beating and admits in the tour programme: "I'm a fool but you have probably worked that out by now."

However, the hedonistic side of his persona soon takes over with "Too Funky" and "Everything She Wants", a favourite from the Wham-era, which goes down a storm with this exuberant crowd. Percussionist Danny Cummings joins the backing singers and Michael at the front as they bring back memories of Wham's farewell at Wembley Stadium 20 years ago.

The fun quota literally hits the roof when a giant caricature of George Bush inflates from the middle of the screen during "Shoot The Dog". Never the most subtle of protest songs, this works a treat live, especially when the singer unzips the US President's trousers to reveal a British bulldog conveniently positioned there. Michael pulls at the leash but there the bulldog remains, chomping, ahem, at the bit. This tour is going nowhere near the US and lawyers presumably stopped the use of a Tony Blair-likeness but the Barcelona fans lap it up.

The second half doesn't quite reach the same heady heights. "Faith" remains a curious hybrid of Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran but Michael is much better at articulating the feelings of the common man and wondering, Sinatra-style, what might have been in "A Different Corner". After "Amazing" and a bizarre reprise of "Too Funky", "I'm Your Man" shows that the boy may have travelled far from the London suburbs but he still remembers the Supremes singles he sangalong to.

It's way past midnight and the singer has patches of sweat on the back of his suit. He's been strutting his funky stuff as much as we have and closes the set with "Outside". As saxophonist Andy Hamilton blows the opening riff of "Careless Whisper", we are transported back to the "Guilty feet, Got no rhythm" era.

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As the credits roll after "Freedom", it's obvious that, even if he only said hola and spoke English the rest of the time, Michael has reconnected with his audience. He didn't perform "This Is Not Real Love", the new single he's recorded with ex-Sugababe Mutya Buena, but no doubt this will come when the tour reaches the UK in November.

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